Authoritarianism Meets Stylishness

By Ben Bull
Published October 06, 2008

A couple of interesting articles in this weekend's Toronto Star.

First off there's Thomas Walkhom's analysis of free market economics versus 'authoritarian capitalism'. Citing economic historian Karl Polanyi's 1944 thesis, 'The Great Transformation', Walkhom examines the pros and cons of government intervention in our capital markets:

"At one level, authoritarian capitalist nations are subject to the same problems as laissez-faire states." He contends, "Indeed, the current financial crisis affects both Russia and China. But in authoritarian states, there is no pretense. American lawmakers may anguish over their lost innocence when they meddle with markets. By contrast, the Russians simply suspend stock exchange trading if they think the markets might produce results the Kremlin doesn't want."

As for Socialist states, it seems they too have had to mend their ways:

Social democracy...came under attack, particularly during the '80s and '90s. European social democratic governments were accused of ignoring productivity, coddling workers and saddling their taxpayers with expensive welfare programs. By the '90s, even in traditional social democratic strongholds like Sweden, a backlash was taking place. Privatization and deregulation became the order of the day. Germany was chastised for allowing trade unions too much authority and France for permitting workers too many paid holidays.

If Walkhom's analysis concludes anything, it's that none of these approaches seems to work too well. Of Blair's Britain he declares:

The so-called New Labour solution of Tony Blair was to marry the free-market economics of former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with police-state methods designed to keep disruptive and marginal groups in line...Unfortunately, Britain's Blairite authoritarians didn't spend enough time taming the market. That country has been badly wounded by the credit crisis, as have other nations that moved too enthusiastically into free-market deregulation.

And as for infamous authoritarian democracies such as China:

Modern China is the most brutal example of modern authoritarian capitalism, and the most successful. In China, the Communist Party maintains a hold on political power in part to prevent citizens from disrupting the market economy that has allowed that country to thrive...effective trade unions are discouraged or banned...workplace benefits are largely non-existent; disputes between businesses and individuals are decided, often harshly, in favour of business.

As we here in Canada examine our own government's approach to minimal market intervention and our America cousins to the south look set for a slow and steady conversion to socialist ideals, we'd do well to consider that no one approach seems to have all the answers.

"Faced with a choice between suppressing markets to encourage freedom or suppressing freedom to encourage markets, what would Americans do?"

That, of course, is the question.

Style Over Substance

The second article that caught my eye was Haroon Siddiqui's commentary, Dion, no orator, but a man of substance.

Oh hear we go again, I thought. Another apology for the lame-duck Liberal Leader. And so it was.

Haroon Siddiqui has defended Dion many times before, usually by the back door, by attacking Harper or Bush.

Star cynics would argue that this tone is par for the course for Canada's leading newspaper, and they're probably right, but one of Siddiqui's recurring arguments in this piece seems closer to the truth:

The derogatory descriptions of St├ęphane Dion are telling. He is "a geek." He is "professorial." He needs new glasses - better still, contact lenses. This is teen talk. Shallow...

Yes it is. But it's also what sells newspapers.

These (media observations) are the obsessions of the age of slick marketing and the TV clip" he continues. "Shouldn't we rather be asking if the leader of the Liberal party has integrity? Intelligence? Knowledge? Experience? Judgment? Courage? Vision?


Does he have anything useful to say about the economy? The environment? Medicare? Child care? Poverty? National unity? Urban Canada? Relations with the United States? Our Afghan quagmire?

I don't know - does he?

Media distractions notwithstanding, Canadians would assess his personal qualities and platform positions.

Maybe we would. But which of us has never been more interested in drama over substance? I mean, come on - this is the entertainment age!

It seems to me that the central problem with Stephan Dion, the problem that most media outlets are trying to get at in their usual inflammatory way, is that he can't sell his message, can't communicate, can't manipulate the media.

It's a sorry commentary that the man's many qualities are overlooked in favour of his tarnished media image, but it's nothing more than a reflection of our information age. It's been said that some of Canada's early Prime Ministers were ugly, image-averse, anti-social, elite...but they were also highly successful political pioneers. But that was then. These days what Canadians are looking for is a figure head, someone to help embolden their complex and inferior identity. We want a prime time leader, not a geek. We want a media darling. And we want a simple message not a Green Shift thesis.

I was listening to a political strategist on the radio the other day, reflecting on the recent American debates:

'Did you notice how often John McCain talked about Barack Obamas' lack of experience?' she asked.

Yes I did! I replied, shouting at the radio. He said it over and over!

'Well that was no accident'.

She went on to explain how political campaigning is all about 'marketing the brand' and described the great lengths strategists will go, to, 'find the right lines'.

'When we find the right words' she explained, 'the themes that spark an emotion in the mind of the voter - we instruct the speaker to repeat them over and over, ad nauseam, until they form an opinion in the voters mind'.

'But what about the substance?' asked the interviewer', 'the policies, the debate?'

'What about it?'

Political leadership in the 21st Century is all about presentation. My advice for the Liberal party is - hire an actor for the job. Trot him or her out like they used to with Ronald Reagan, with a nice haircut and an ear piece, and feed him the lines. Or bring in a Sarah Palin look-a-like and keep the press away.

Because let's face it, with the exception of the political-Billy-no-mates of the world (us, in other words) politics isn't interesting. It's only when you sex it up that people bother to get engaged. Just look at the recent US VP debate.

"Vote against him because you do not like his policies" pleads Siddiqui, rounding out his case "not because he is socially awkward or that he reads books. Vote for Harper because you like his policies, not because he got himself photographed in a sweater in front of a fireplace."

Nice thought, but it ain't gonna fly. Give me sexy-Sarah over sad-sap-Stephan anyday. Oh, what's this? Hold on a minute - is that Palin on You Tube again? Is that really her in that bikini...? Sorry folks, gotta go...

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By jason (registered) | Posted October 06, 2008 at 16:49:31

I saw that first article. A good read. I"ve been saying for years (despite the constant negative backlash) that the US is really more of an authoritarian socialist nation...they use the term authoritarian capitalism. I'm not sure where the term capitalism fits though? Isn't capitalism all about zero government intervention?? Or is it really about zero government regulation, but massive government 'intervention' when everything goes wrong?? Who knows these days.

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By LL (registered) - website | Posted October 06, 2008 at 21:59:45

Walkom's article was very interesting - a cut above the current orthodoxy in political economy, which uncritically assumes the capitalist marketplace to be the locus of freedom. I also like how it not-so-subtly alludes to the fascist tendencies in American capitalism.

Market regulation might seem authoritarian for corporate elites and financial bigshots. But for working class people - the vast majority of people - the most immediate sources of coercion are 1) the workplace boss, and 2) the landlord. In other words, capitalist social relations are themselves highly authoritarian. This is the elephant in the room that even academics as "critical" as Walkom tend to ignore.

Structurally, corporations are run like dictatorships, with hierarchical chains of commmand-and-obedience (historically modelled on early modern militaries). "Free choice", for the worker and consumer alike, consists of the ability to switch allegiance from one dictatorship to another (change jobs or change brands), or to become a dictator oneself (start a business or climb the corporate ladder).

Like Sal, the pizzeria owner from Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" says: "This ain't a democracy. I'm the boss."

One thing I found inocculating about Walkom's article was the apparant assumption that the only alternatives in the face of capitalist dysfunction is for the state to intervene in one way or another. This systematically ignores the great libertarian soc'list (damn spam filter) tradition.

Even "left-wing" academia seems to conveniently forget that the anarchists Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin were rivals of Marx in the soc'list movement from the very beginning, or that, until 1917, anarchism was a bigger social movement than either Marxism or social democracy in many Western nations. Shamefully, it ignores the possibilities of large-scale worker control that the Spanish anarchists demonstrated in 1936.

This isn't just historical wanking. Almost a decade ago, Argentina had a dress rehearsal for the current financial crisis. Across Buenos Aires, neighbourhoods organized directly democratic Popular Assemblies. Hundreds of factories were collectivized and kept in operation by the workers. Don't believe me? Watch "The Take".

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